LeBron James is playing some of the best ball of his career. / Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports
HOUSTON â?? Two years ago, who knows how LeBron James would have answered the question.
But we know his answer today.
Already weary and leery of the Michael vs. Kobe vs. LeBron debate, James knew the question was coming â?? not only because of Michael Jordan's 50th birthday but also because Jordan opened his mouth and said he would take Bryant over James because Bryant has five titles and James has just one â?? entirely missing that James is six years younger and until recently never had as much talent around him as Bryant did for his five titles.
Bryant, for his part, hasn't gotten into the debate directly, but did agree with one aspect of Jordan's comments.
"I think the message is winning is above everything else," he said. "That's what drives (Jordan). Same thing that drives him now, win as many as you can. And it's really that simple."
James does want to win. It's the reason he left his hometown Cleveland Cavaliers and led the formation of the Miami Heat super team three seasons ago. He finally got his elusive title last season and his team is the top seed in the Eastern Conference and appears to be primed for another run.
Still, James knows that there are some of the game's best players who don't have several championships or any, so he's not buying into Jordan's argument completely.
"At the end of the day, rings don't always define someone's career," he said. "Patrick Ewing is one of the greatest of all-time. Reggie Miller is one of the greatest of all-time. Sometimes, it's the situation you're in, the team that you're on and it's about timing as well."
Asked if Jordan's comments provided bulletin-board material, James replied, "What do I need bulletin-board material for? My inspiration is the game that I love."
What drives James?
"I want to be the best of all-time," he said.
He's on his way.
The three-time NBA MVP has the credentials to be considered for a fourth. He is averaging 27.3 points, 8.2 rebounds, 6.9 assists, 1.7 steals and is shooting career highs in field goal percentage (56.5%) and three-point percentage (42.4%). As much as he handles the basketball, James is on pace to average less than three turnovers for the second time in his career.
James makes it look so effortless with grace and strength and he does it with such consistency, it's easy to take what he does for granted and not appreciate it as much as possible.
His game is compact and efficient and more and more difficult to defend. He puts intense pressure on defenses to make tough decisions, and then exploits them.
"If guys are playing up on me, then I'm driving," he said. "If guys back up, I'm shooting. If my teammates are open, I'm going to pass the ball, but I'm trying to be more aggressive and not letting guys off the hook."
James' play has been the focus the past seven games â?? all Heat victories. In that stretch, He has averaged 32 points, 7.4 rebounds, 6.6 assists and shot 69% from the field and 53.8% on three-pointers. He became the first player in NBA history to score at least 30 points and shoot at least 60% in six consecutive games.
For a guy as good as he is, it's hard to believe that he could have been better..
"I'm just a better player and as a result, a higher shooting percentage," James said. "I'm confident in my ability out on the floor. I don't feel like there's a shot I can't make that I take. It's not like I went to the offseason saying, 'OK, I'm going try to shoot 50% from the field.' I'm going to work on my game. I'm going to get better at what I do. What I do in the offseason and what I do in practice, I implement that into a game situation. This is the result."
Visions of spreadsheets and advanced statistical data must be dancing in Heat coach Erik Spoelstra's head when James mentions "efficiency." James maximizes his production in the minutes he plays.
In the past seven games with James on the court, the Heat have scored 125.6 points per 100 possessions, better than their league-leading 110.4 points per 100 possessions for the season.
"What he's doing now more than he's ever done is dominate games with his IQ and experience," Spoelstra said. "Now he's really starting to get it, and as the best player in the game, he's not letting teams off the hook. He's going to get the play he wants to get. If it's not available, he has the trust to let somebody else make the play or have the poise to still get what he wants to get."
Now here's where we get back to the original argument. If James' greatness has to be defined with winning, he appears to be making that happen as well,
"The best thing about what I've been able to do (in the past seven games) as a result is us having seven straight wins," he said. "That's more important than what I'm doing individually."
It's just that what he's doing individually is, as Spoelstra said, being a team player. The NBA ranks a player's playmaking ability and James is fourth in the league. He's also ranked fifth in efficiency and fifth best as the clutch player.
He also ranks 12th in the league in assists, a stat mostly resevered for guards. Why does a guy who is seemingly unstoppable offensively feel the need to share the ball?
James said it began as a kid with the coaches who shaped his vision of what the game should be. First Frank Walker Sr., in little league basketball, then Keith Dambrot and Dru Joyce in high school and AAU.
"If team is what it's all about and you're winning, why would you think differently? That was just my DNA," James said. "I've never changed my approach. It's who I am. It's how I was brought up. It's just how I play."
James' game has transcended into the Jordan-Bryant stratosphere, and it's a compliment, if not just a sports bar argument when James is compared to the greats. But James is his own player, unlike Jordan â?? just as Bryant is unlike Jordan and Magic Johnson unlike anyone else.
Here is the part that scares opponents and is exciting for basketball fans: Spoelstra believes James can improve.
"We don't want to want to put a ceiling on him. Why would we? And why would he?" Spoelstra said. "Most people would have said last year when he helped lead us to a title and had a career year, that's the best he can play. And yet, he's reinvented himself and found a way to go to another level."
So what does James think? Is this the best he's ever played?
"t's just right now we're witnessing it, so it's easy to say 'This is it,' " James said. "But I don't know. I've played some great basketball over my career. But as far as efficiency, I haven't played like this."
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